Irish Whiskey 101: Everything You Need to Know

What is Irish Whiskey? Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about this smooth spirit from the Emerald Isle.

A green bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey sits beside a green and white dish towel on a white surface.

Along with Guinness and Baileys, Irish whiskey is the key to many St. Patrick’s Day cocktails. This smooth sipper with light, fruity flavor and easy-drinking qualities is certainly one to know and add to your home bar.

In fact, the word “whiskey” comes from the Irish term uisce beatha, which means “water of life.”

It was once the most popular spirit in the world, and has seen a resurgence in popularity in the last 30 years, despite a long period of decline throughout the 19th century.

So what is Irish whiskey? What does it taste like and how do you drink it? Let’s talk all about this smooth spirit from the Emerald Isle.

an Irish whiskey old-fashioned in a gold polka dot glass next to a bottle of jameson whiskey.

What is Irish whiskey?

Irish whiskey is a type of whiskey that’s made on the island of Ireland from unmalted barley and cereal grains.

Like bourbon, which must be produced in the United States, it must be made in Ireland to bear that name on its label.

Its flavor is smoother, cleaner and less smoky than its Scottish counterpart, AKA Scotch whisky. Scotch’s smoky, earthy overtones are thanks to the peat smoke that dries the malted barley. Peat is rarely used for malting outside of Scotland.

It’s usually enjoyed neat or on the rocks, or mixed into cocktails. It is also an ingredient in Irish cream liqueur, which is a cream liqueur with hints of chocolate and coffee.

More spirit guides: Rum 101Tequila 101Vodka 101Mezcal 101

kilbeggan distillery building
Kilbeggan Distillery, Kilbeggan, Ireland

History of Irish whiskey


Irish whiskey’s long history dates all the way back to the 13th century. The oldest documentation of whiskey in Ireland is from 1405, but by 1556 it was more widespread. That’s when the English Parliament passed an act insisting “aqua vitae” was illegal to make without a license.

In 1608, King James I granted a distilling license to a landowner named Sir Thomas Phillips. Through this license, the Old Bushmills Distillery can say it is the world’s oldest licensed distillery and the first whiskey distillery.


In the mid-1800s, the Temperance movement and the Great Famine of Ireland both contributed to a decline, as well as issues with licensing and taxation.

By the 1880s, the sales of Scotch saw massive growth, while Irish whiskey saw a decline. That was in part due to the invention of the Coffey still, a continuous distillation apparatus with greater efficiency than the pot stills that were in use by Irish distilleries.

Though invented by an Irishman, Aeneas Coffey, the Irish distilleries weren’t interested in the new technology, but Scottish and English distilleries were quick to adopt it as they were able to use it to produce a cheaper “blended whiskey” that proved popular in Britain.

Other factors that contributed to the pressure on Irish distillers included the Irish War of Independence, the subsequent civil war and a trade war with Britain, as well as the Great Depression and prohibition in the United States (which was the whiskey’s second biggest market at the time). All of this affected exports and created economic difficulties that forced many distilleries to close.

By the early 20th century, Scotland surpassed Ireland to win the title of the world’s largest producer of whiskey.

old midleton distillery
Old Midleton Distillery, Cork, Ireland


In the 1890s, Ireland had approximately 28 distilleries. By 1966 — just 75 years later — there were just two distilleries left. And by 1972 those remaining distilleries, Bushmills Distillery and Old Midleton Distillery (now New Midleton Distillery), were owned by the same company, Irish Distillers.

The monopoly ended when the first new distillery in decades, Cooley Distillery, launched in 1987. Pernod Ricard’s took over Irish Distillers in 1988, which helped to focus efforts on marketing overseas for Irish whiskies, especially the Jameson brand. Distilleries also began to experiment with new flavors, methods and cocktails.

Ever since, Irish whiskey sales have boomed and it has become the fasted growing spirit in the world once again. In 2022, the Republic of Ireland boasted 42 distilleries — nearly double that of the 1890s — and more are in the works.

A copper still at an Irish distillery.

How Irish whiskey is made

Irish whiskey is usually triple-distilled in copper pot stills and aged in new or previously new wooden casks.

There are several styles and each one differs slightly in the grains used and the distillation process.

Some methods use the original pot still, while grain whiskey and blended whiskey use Coffey stills or column stills.

Mash turn for distilling whiskey

Types of Irish whiskey

There are several forms, with the name of each style stemming from the grains used and the process of distillation.

Here are the are four main types:

Irish Single malt whiskey: When made entirely with malted barley that’s distilled in a pot still at a single distillery, they’re called single malt whiskeys, which are similar to single malt scotch. They may be double- or triple-distilled.

Single pot still whiskey: Also called, “pure pot still whiskey” or “Irish pot still whiskey” his style of whiskey is made from a combination of malted and unmalted barley. It is distilled in a single pot still at a single distillery. It’s different from single malt whiskey thanks to the inclusion of raw, unmalted grains in the mash bill. This was the most common style until blended whiskey was introduced in the 20th century.

Grain whiskey: When produced from continuous distillation from a column still or Coffey still, versus a pot still, it’s considered grain whiskey, which has a light, neutral flavor. Most of grain whiskey, which can be made from a variety of grains, is used to make blended whiskey. It can also be made from a single type of grain, which is called single grain whiskey.

Blended whiskey: The most common type, blended whiskey is made from combining single malt whiskey, single pot still whiskey or both.

Homemade salted caramel whiskey is in a mason jar on a gold coaster with caramel candies next to it

Flavored Irish whiskey

With a light and smooth flavor that bears fresh, fruity and/or grassy notes, Irish whiskey is easy to drink and approachable, making it a great starter spirit for people who wish to foray into the world of whiskey.

Adding flavors to alcohol, like peanut butter for example, is growing in popularity in America, and several Irish brands have ventured into the trend.

Jameson makes several flavored versions, including a coffee version called Jameson Cold Brew and an orange version called Jameson Orange. Proper No. Twelve produces an apple whiskey.

In addition, Jameson’s Caskmates series has two variations that are finished in craft beer barrels, Jameson IPA Edition and Jameson Stout Edition.

If you’re feeling creative, you can use any brand of this Irish spirit to create a number of homemade infusions, including:

Jameson distillery chimney
Jameson Distillery Bow St., Dublin, Ireland

How much is Irish whiskey?

A 750ml bottle of Irish whiskey can range from $20-$60, with single malts, high-end brands and rarer bottles costing more.

The most expensive is sold by the Craft Irish Whiskey Co., which sold limited numbers of its “Emerald Isle Collection” boxes that were made in partnership with Fabergé. It sold for $60,000 USD at an auction in Nov. 2020.

When is Irish Whiskey Day?

International Irish Whiskey Day is celebrated annually on March 3, which is two weeks to the day before St. Patrick’s Day, a cultural and religious celebration in Ireland — and around the world.

The third day of the third month was chosen because the symbol of Ireland, the Shamrock, has three leaves. The Irish flag bears a trio of colors on the Irish flag: green, white and orange. It also represents the three main types of the Irish alcohol: single malt, single grain and the single pot still.

a gold spoon, a gold jigger and two Irish coffees

Irish whiskey cocktails

You can use this Irish spirit in just about any bourbon cocktail. Simply replace it 1:1 for the Irish version.

Try it in the classic old-fashioned and the classic Manhattan cocktail in lieu of bourbon, or one of these Irish whiskey drinks:


What is Irish whiskey?

Irish whiskey is a type of whisky that’s made in Ireland. It is produced from unmalted barley and cereal grains. Its flavor is smooth and clean.

What is the most popular Irish whiskey?

Jameson is the most popular brand of Irish whiskey. In 2022, it was #4 on the liquor distributor Drizly’s 20 Top-Selling Spirits.

What is the difference between Irish whiskey and regular whiskey?

Irish whiskey is a type of whiskey. The category of whiskey includes rye whiskey, bourbon, Scotch, Canadian whisky Irish whiskey and Japanese whiskey. All of these types of whiskey vary in ingredients, origin, flavor and production method.

Is Irish whiskey Bourbon or Scotch?

Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey and bourbon whiskey are all different types of whiskey. The differences are many: in flavor, ingredients, origin and how they are produced.
Scotch, which comes from Scotland, is characterized by its smoky flavor. Irish whiskey has a cleaner, less smoky taste, and must be produced in Ireland. Bourbon, an American whiskey, has a slightly sweeter flavor.

What does Irish whiskey taste like?

Irish whiskey is generally considered to be smooth and light, with fresh, fruity and grassy notes. It’s easy to drink and approachable, making it a great starter whiskey for people who wish to foray into the world of whiskey.

What are the most popular Irish Whiskey brands?

The most popular Irish whiskey brands are Jameson, Bushmills and Tullamore Dew.

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